The Echoes of the Mind – History of Sociology

History of Sociology

Sociology is the study of how people behave in groups, and how their behavior is shaped by groups. Tribal behaviors that formed the core of societies were a subject of discourse at least as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Man is the child of customs, not the child of his ancestors. ~ Ibn Khaldun

Tunisian polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was one of the founders of sociology and economics. His theories influenced 17th-century historians who analyzed the rise and decline of the Ottoman empire. Khaldun’s economic insights also impressed European scholars.

When population grows, available labor increases. In turn, luxury increases, corresponding with rising profit. The additional labor serves luxury and wealth, in contrast to the original labor, which served the necessity of life. ~ Ibn Khaldun

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French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) set the stage for modern sociology with his naïve sentiment that societies could intelligently progress if steered by social scientists. Such optimism was a fruit from the Age of Enlightenment, as felicity with reasoning succored secularism in Europe. Such happy thoughts thematically continue to this day among many theoretical academics, who blithely believe that social solutions may be had via engineered increments.

Auguste Comte

Society cannot be regarded as composed of individuals. The true social unit is the family; it is essentially on the plan of the family that society is constructed. ~ Auguste Comte

Frenchman Auguste Comte (1798–1857) was a philosopher of science who founded modern sociology. With his mechanist mind-set Comte preferred to call the new field social physics.

Following the lead of de Saint-Simon, Comte developed positivism, which declares that the only valid knowledge comes from the logical treatment of sensory experience. In rejecting introspection and intuition, positivism is a strong espousal of empiricism.

Comte took positivism as far as declaring that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws. In other words, positivism decrees that there is a natural social order.

From science comes prediction; from prediction comes action. ~ Auguste Comte

Comity hauled his positivism into the political arena, where he rejected democracy in favor of elitism, with leaders guided by moral principles. In embracing rule by rationality, Comte recast Plato’s “philosopher-king” ideal. (Plato discerned that the quality of a polity depended upon its political leadership. From this flows the requisite of a trained political class (“everything proper to the craft”) governing toward society’s best interests. For ideal governance, Plato stated: “philosophers become kings.”) Preference for societal order over personal liberty was not well-received by contemporaries, to put it mildly.

The principle of cooperation, spontaneous or concerted, is the basis of society, and the object of society must ever be to find the right place for its individual members in its great cooperative scheme. ~ Auguste Comte

Comte considered “progress” toward “perfect” society inevitable, given a determined “priesthood of positivism”: political leadership trained in sociology and scientific methods.

Harriet Martineau

The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of education. As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given. The choice is to either be ‘ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.’ ~ Harriet Martineau

Englishwoman Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was the first female sociologist. She began by translating Comte’s work from French to English. Before Marx or Weber, Martineau examined social class and how it affected society and the people in it.

Laws and customs may be creative of vice; and should be therefore perpetually under process of observation and correction: but laws and customs cannot be creative of virtue: they may encourage and help to preserve it; but they cannot originate it. ~ Harriet Martineau

To Martineau, the degree to which a society may be considered civilized is judged by the conditions in which its people live. Theoretical ideals are no measure of how civilized a society is if they do not apply to all its members.

Understandably, for a freethinking woman of her time, Martineau considered the subservience of women comparable to slavery. She opposed both. Martineau highlighted the hypocrisy of a society that prided itself on liberty while practicing oppression.

Men who pass most comfortably through this world are those who possess good digestions and hard hearts. ~ Harriet Martineau

In exhibiting her brilliance, Martineau wrote on political economy, sociology, and manners, as well as being a novelist. Her early writing on economics and taxation gained her national notoriety and funded her tour of the United States in 1834–1836.

Martineau’s outspokenness on social issues earned her death threats while traveling the southern United States. Her subsequent book, Society in America (1837), pointed out the hypocrisy of a country where supposedly all were created equal, yet women had no real rights.

Martineau also found fault with the free enterprise system she found there, which allowed the unfettered pursuit of profit while running roughshod over others’ rights. She felt that democracy could not be preserved unless private property was abolished.

The civilisation and the morals of the Americans fall far below their own principles. ~ Harriet Martineau

Martineau was prescient in this regard. American democracy has long been corrupted by the wealthy elite who readily purchase political power. By the end of the 19th century, the US government had become thoroughly plutocratic: an evolution of excess unchecked to the present day.

Karl Marx

Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand. ~ Karl Marx

German historian, sociologist, and economist Karl Marx (1818–1883) is best known for his fervent espousal of socialism to address the societal evils of capitalism. He came to favor this polity as a remedy to man’s rapacious nature: the ready willingness to exploit and subjugate, thereby accumulating wealth at others’ diminution.

The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs. ~ Karl Marx

Marx’s key observation was that the method of material production determines social structure in a society. Marx’s sociology focused on how the wealth inequality generated by capitalism invariably drove schisms in society, creating socioeconomic classes.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. ~ Karl Marx

To Marx, dominant capitalists not only exploit workers, they also determine a society’s collective psyche through their social power. The ruling elite maintain their power in part by determining the cultural milieu.

The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. ~ Karl Marx

An idealist like Comte, Marx had an undue respect for the idea that there could be a science of societal engineering. Marx called his proposed political system “scientific socialism.”

Herbert Spencer

Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society. ~ Herbert Spencer

English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) took a Darwinist view of society. Though agreeing with Marx about class struggles propelling human societies, Spencer was antithetical to Marx about the resultant inequities needing amelioration. To Spencer, social Darwinism justified the ruling class as having won their position via social “survival of the fittest.” Government had no moral right to step in.

Government is essentially immoral. ~ Herbert Spencer

Compassion was not Spencer’s long suit. He was adamantly against social welfare, fearing that it would interfere with weeding out the biologically inferior. Preserving the unfit would only weaken the “great white race.” Spencer promoted sociology for sociopaths.

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools. ~ Herbert Spencer

Stripped of predispositions, the evolutionary perspective – now called sociocultural evolutionism – is a common approach to understanding social dynamics. Taking a page from Enlightenment optimism, cultural evolution presupposes that social systems have progressed historically, which is a bold fiction without basis in fact.

Spencer’s social Darwinism as a way of explaining and justifying human inequality is still popular, despite the absence of evidence to support it. ~ American sociologist Betty Yorburg

Émile Durkheim

Our whole social environment seems to us to be filled with forces which really exist only in our own minds. ~ Émile Durkheim

French sociologist, social psychologist, and philosopher Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) also viewed society through an evolutionary lens.

One cannot explain a social fact of any complexity except by following its complete development through all social species. ~ Émile Durkheim

Durkheim was another devotee of sociology as a mechanical science. He worked at a time of great social change, as industrialization stressed societal stability. His interest was in social order and how it was maintained.

Society is not a mere sum of individuals. Rather, the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics. The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which its members would were they isolated. ~ Émile Durkheim

The answer Durkheim discovered was that culture acts as social glue: mores, morals, and traditions – what Durkheim called social facts – act as collective conceptions which guide behaviors.

Man is only a moral being because he lives in society, since morality consists in solidarity with the group, and varies according to that solidarity. ~ Émile Durkheim

Max Weber

All knowledge of cultural reality, as may be seen, is always knowledge from particular points of view. ~ Max Weber

Albeit viewing sociology as a hard science, German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920) rejected Comte’s positivism, offering instead antipositivism: that people may only be understood via empathic identification. Swimming against the contemporaneous behaviorist stream of psychology, Weber did not think that relying upon insight was contrary to being objective.

Every type of purely direct concrete description bears the mark of artistic portrayal. ~ Max Weber

Weber believed that Marx’s analysis of class struggle was oversimplified (thought essentially on the money). Weber saw 3 dimensions of social stratification: class (economic), status/prestige (cultural) and power (political). Weber also emphasized how ideas shaped society.

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. ~ Max Weber

Weber extended Marx’s worry over laborers not owning their tools to a broader social trend: that of increasing bureaucratization, where all workers lacked ownership interest in their equipment or endeavors. Whereas earlier sociologists had admired a mechanistic model, Weber feared that socialism – in turning over the means of production to governments – would simply enhance the power of bureaucracies: the impersonality, routine, and regimentation of which Weber detested.

The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production. ~ Max Weber


Sociology was born of the modern ardor to improve society. ~ American sociologist Albion Small

▫ Although conceptions of human sociality are perhaps as old as the species, sociology as an academic study only blossomed in the 19th century. Under sway of the Enlightenment mind-set, the pioneers of sociology were mostly men deluded in thinking of societies as perfectible through science. A notable exception was Harriet Martineau: a woman with a sensible perspective of human fallibility.

▫ Capitalist industrialization shaped modern society. As such, a bedrock inquiry of sociology has been the consequences of gross inequity from exploitative economics.

▫ The state of modern societies shows that tribalism is as vibrant now as it was 100,000 years ago. For all the advances in technology and supposed ‘civilization’, human sociality is little changed: group conflicts over resources remain rife.

It is not disbelief that is dangerous to our society; it is belief. ~ George Bernard Shaw